Paging Mr Clapton…

Anybody who knows anything about me as a guitarist or has heard me play soon realises that when it comes to my primary influence I wear it pretty much on my sleeve:

Mayall-era Clapton.

As exemplified on the groundbreaking ‘Beano’ album and a handful of odd tracks it was old ‘Slowhand’ who really inspired me to play.

His sound on that album – a Les Paul Standard through a cranked up Marshall combo – is my favourite guitar tone of all time and his playing was equally impressive. Playing with real flair and joie de vivre, Eric plays his way with panache through up tempo and slow blues and shows exactly why ‘Clapton is God’ appeared as graffiti all over London in 1966.

Even when he split with Mayall to form Cream along with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker he managed to keep this exuberance and some bootlegs of early Cream reveal someone who still had the ability to stun an audience with his playing. Sure, his sound changed a little – playing through two Marshall stacks will do that – but the vibrato, extremely well-controlled bends and breathtaking invention were still all there.

However, things quickly changed. Playing ever and ever longer versions of numbers from what was a fairly limited repertoire, Clapton started to repeat himself and the Cream of the final tour in 1968 sounded redundant and tired.

Then the real transformation started. Soon abandoning Gibsons and Marshalls for all Fender gear, Clapton tried to reinvent himself and, whilst always staying with the blues, he branched out reaching a trough of mediocrity in 1989 with the ‘Journeyman’ album which saw him totally blanded out on MOR pap.

It was then that he sought to return to more blues-based material, but by then it was too late.

He’d lost it – totally.

Instead of progressing as a blues player he’d just stagnated and marked himself down as maybe rock’s number one underachiever with 4 years of glorious playing and then over 40 more years – with perhaps just the exception of the ‘Layla’ album – of simply treading water.

Why I’ve chosen to write this now is because I’ve just ‘acquired’ a superb bootleg of the Madison Square Garden gig on the 18th of this month (3 days ago! How do they do it?) from his joint tour with Jeff Beck.

Sure, Jeff’s past his best really, but compared to Clapton he sounds inspired, interested and – above all – as if he still enjoys playing and isn’t just going through the motions like old Eric is. When they get together to play a final third set together after a solo set each I’m really quite amazed at how Eric manages to play in the face of such energy from Beck.

Maybe it’s to his credit that he doesn’t just throw down his guitar and walk off, but at least that would be an honest response, because I can only see two alternatives – he wants the dosh or he still thinks he’s got something to ‘say’ on guitar.

Well, the dosh isn’t a problem, so it must be the latter reason and that’s just simple self-delusion…

Give it up Eric, soon, please.

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8 Responses

  1. Very good post. I’m no guitar player but for a man who tortured himself over the ‘authenticity’ of his blues to be such a hack (albeit a hugely talented one) is actually a tragedy.

  2. Yeah, I guess there’d be a lot of people who secretly think that even if professing to be continuing fans.

    What do you think of Joe Bonamassa?

  3. Like you, EC has been my number one influence. I must be a few years younger than you though as I got into Eric Clapton through the “Layla” album. Someone at school swapped it for something else and I was hooked. Not on the famous title track but on Key to the highway, Bell bottom blues, Have you ever loved a woman. I kind of missed the revolution that was the Beano album and Cream. The Les Paul/Marshall combination was well established by other artists (to me – Paul Kossoff) but I didn’t realise at the time that EC had pioneered that sound and way of playing.

    I completely agree that EC went through a very bland phase – probably everything from Slowhand to Pilgrim. And has now been trying to get back to the blues again. But then he’s not the “angy young man from Surbiton” anymore so how could his playing still contain all the fire, passion and exuberance it used to have. He’s not even uniquely talented as an electric blues player anymore. Go to the monday night jams at Ain’t Nothin But (or any other blues bar) and there’s almost certaint to be at least one player there who could give EC a real run for his money.

    He’s 65 now, so maybe he should pack it in. Problem is if he and his peers do retire the whole music industry will struggle. Beck, Page, Plant, McCartney, Stewart, Gilmour, etc etc. they’re alll in the free bus-pass age group. Who has the music industry got to replace them for the mega-concerts at the O2 and such like? So the old fogeys keep on going, retreading the licks and songs of yesteryear. There must be an audience for it………

    I still love listening to Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs…… in fact, it’s now playing as I type this. (maybe I’m really a Bobby Whitlock/Duane Allman fan??)

    I think we can both agree that we’re so glad that EC picked up the guitar. And we can also agree that maybe it’s time he put it down again.

    Andrew

  4. @Simon – yes, I like Joe’s stuff but the earlier material in particular. He seems to have suffered from ‘bland out’ with his last couple of albums.

  5. @Andrew – yes, I’m lucky enough to have been soaking up the influences then and the Beano album couldn’t have been better timed.

    However, it was the Stones and then Mike Bloomfield with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band that I heard before Eric. But although I’m still fans of both – and Bloomfield is _way_ more significant a player than he’s given credit for – it was Eric’s sound that really grabbed my attention. That bark of an overdriven guitar that wasn’t just the product of a fuzz box but had amp colouring too.

  6. I am sure to be slammed as a philistine now, but I take comfort from the fact that I am in the majority.

    The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter how brilliant you are on an instrument, it’s the songs/tunes that are important. If you can do the job within a good song, that’ll do….if you can be brilliant, well….brilliant! But being brilliant without a good song doesn’t do it for most people, apart from the cognoscenti who stroke their goatee beards appreciatively….I never thought the Beano album was anything special when I got around to going back to it, being a younger chappie 🙂

  7. I bought a Gibson SG because of one album (Live Cream Vol II) and, more specifically, one track – Steppin’ Out; 13m45 of fretboard magic.
    Up to 1968 the guy was blistering; watch him demonstrate his techniques on the famous “jangling noise machine” Farewell Concert interview (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9ODNQPQo3A) but the fire went out. He guttered faintly for the solo on “Presence of the Lord” on the Blind Faith album and maybe – just maybe – the solo on Derek & the Dominos live Fillmore album’s version of “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” but it seems that after Cream he’d got shot of whatever was eating him. He’s even said that he dislikes his playing in the Cream era (and recently said he doesn’t like the “Wheels of Fire” Crossroads).
    I’ve been loyal for years and I can appreciate the technical skills he has but he may as well be Hank Marvin now. WTF was he doing with ‘Pilgrim’ and ‘Reptile’?
    Mind you, I see Jeff Beck and think “but what are you saying, mate?”. Yeah yeah you can play lots of notes and bend a string perfectly (with finger or whammy bar) and all the rest but you really are just being flash aren’t you? Leaves me cold (as a friend once said, “Jazz? Musical wanking”). Gary Moore ditto, SRV similarly. Too many notes, not enough feel. Eddie Van Halen has a lot to answer for.
    Rory Gallagher was the last of the genuine guitarists who played as if it meant the world to him.
    But I have brothers and friends who saw Eric around 1965/66 in Richmond, Kingston, Eel Pie Island, the Ricky-Tick in Hounslow, Klook’s Kleek, The Railway Club and so on who tell me that when Eric played, people forgot to talk, smoke, drink or even breathe.

  8. You know me Steve I am no fan of Clapton. However I have to admit to liking 461 Ocean Boulevard. Not sure why but I just love the songs and the arrangements

    My brother bought it when it came out, I was only 12 and fell in love with it.

    Ok you can hit me now 😉

    Ian

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